Sex and the Gold Rush in San Joaquin County

What comes to your mind when you think about California's Gold Rush? Do you see yellow specks in the sand? Frenzied miners? Lawlessness? How about unattached women who practiced the oldest profession on earth? Knowledge about the presence of prostitutes in the gold fields is nothing new. But not until recently did I come across evidence in the Museum's archives that they practiced their trade in San Joaquin County.

Stockton, Calif., 1850.

Last week, I found myself looking into the Museum's Kerr–Hurd Family Collection at the request of a patron. One of the more prominent members was William Reed Kerr (1813–1861), a physician. Kerr studied medicine at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, got a license to practice in 1843, married, and moved to Ohio, where he and his family of four lived half a decade before heading to California's Gold Rush.

The family settled on a ranch east of Stockton after its arrival. Meanwhile, William became a "circuit–riding doctor." He also opened a pharmacy in Stockton—apparently unconcerned over what many of us today would see as a conflict of interest.

The Kerr–Hurd Collection includes William's ten–volume medical library. Reading the titles reminds me of how far medical science has gone over the past 150 years. Not only are there books on anatomy, physiology, and surgery, but the library also contains volumes on "botanic medicine" and phrenology, the ability to analyze one's character by feeling bumps on the head. In addition, there are three well–worn books—almost one–third of the library—devoted to what one delicately calls "Diseases of the Genital Organs."

It seems that somebody had venereal disease, and they wanted relief. This was apparently not an isolated problem, nor was the number of sufferers small. Judging from the evidence, Kerr faced significant demand for treatment, and he answered with a suitable level of attention. I'm willing to wager that the dozen years Kerr practiced medicine in Stockton—in part, picking up after the sins of the Forty–Niners—afforded him and his family a comfortable living.

So does Kerr's library offer ironclad evidence? I wouldn't give it the same weight as more direct evidence from photographs, diary entries, or legal judgments. But the glimpse it offers is consistent with the picture of disorder known to exist throughout Gold Rush California. San Joaquin County may have been a very special place, but it seems to have shared with the rest of the state the conditions and kind of people that all too often left careless miners with souvenirs they would never forget.

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